By August Wilson
Theatre Royal Bath
Directed by Pauline Randall
23 February 2013
The production comes with this promo line:
Writing in the grand tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, August Wilson’s cycle of plays about the African American experience is widely considered to be one of the most significant contributions to American drama and has won just about every award possible.
Fences won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987, as well as the Tony Award, and Drama Desk Award the same year. James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington have both played the lead role before Lenny Henry. In 2010, it won the Tony Award for Best revival. A play truly garlanded with awards, then.
For plot summary see this link to wiki.
I’m going to differ right at the start. If “Fences” had been set in a blue collar white American setting, and the name of the patriarchal central figure changed from “Troy” to say … let’s pluck some random names out of the air … Eddie Carbone or Willy Loman … then it would be written off as both “conventional” and “derivative”. Which is my assessment of the play. We’re on difficult ground, but if this play were NOT set in an African-American household, it would have set no ripples whatsoever in the world of theatre. Troy, the central figure, rails against the racism that stopped him succeeding in the world of sports. August Wilson has benefited from the reverse: overpraise because he’s African-American and the setting is African-American. Granted, he writes superb dialogue. Shame about the (lack of) plot, and much more, the lack of “theatricality.”
The play, Fences, is both extremely conventional and also bows to the American theatre norms: one set, small cast, major lead emotive roles. Lots of narrated past, lashings of angst and chest beating. The play though, is at best, mediocre. It’s also too long, too wordy and a little dull.The central patriarchal figure of Troy is played by Lenny Henry, and it’s a five star performance in a two star play. Lennie Henry is a fine actor, and throws himself fully into the role of the garbageman and paterfamilias. Tanya Moodie, as his wife Rose, is equally stunning in her performance. Both inhabit their roles physically; every movement contributing to character. But these American plays were always designed for flat-out bravura performances by a male lead and a female lead. We get that. Lenny Henry successfully fills some mighty footsteps (Jones & Washington) cementing his positioning as a serious actor. There isn’t much humor in the script though, a difference with British plays.
American 20th century theatre in Britain always suffers because no one gets the accent 100% right. Lenny Henry gets closest, probably 99.9% (he was always expert at accents) but even he drifts noticeably between a BEV (Black American Vernacular) “ax” for “ask” and a straight British English “ask.” Colin McFarlane as the friend, Jim Bono, and Tanya Moodie as Rose are not far behind him in sounding (nearly always) American. None of the rest get above 90%. I’m being generous, but this is par for the course on American-accented plays in Britain with British casts. Each deviation is no more than individual idiolect perhaps, but with everyone slipping ever so slightly in the same direction it jars just a tad. We have two more American plays done in Britain coming up too.
The set of the house is excellent, but some things fail. The sawing scenes, cutting wood for the fence, are being complimented if they are described as “tentative.” Troy’s a powerful guy. His sawing doesn’t demonstrate that. The idea of having a rolled up cloth baseball hanging from a tree is clearly important, but the weedy attempts to hit it by the son, Cory, are amateur verging on ludicrous. I don’t blame the actor, but if you hang it from a fragile stage tree, he has no chance of doing the scene any justice by whacking it hard and accurately. You can see him thinking about the swing of the bat and patting it gently forward. Having established that he can’t hit it hard on that set, he then repeats the feeble swing several times. If you have a ball hanging in the backyard, you get really good at smacking it hard and repeatedly. My sister did it with a tennis ball, I did it with a football. I’d have died of shame if I’d got less than twenty hard, fast rebounds. In retrospect, I feel sorry for the neighbours whose wall was our target. Also, Ashley Zhangazhna acts extremely well as Corey, but is by nature too short and slight to be a believable potential American Football star. On which, baseball metaphors abound, even being the punch lines to end Act One. That does not work in Britain.
The only strong bits of theatricality are Cory’s song with his stepsister, Raynell, just before the end … we both thought it the best thing in the play … and the failed attempts by Gabriel, the damaged brother, to sound a trumpet, i.e. the Last Trump, at the end.
Costume? Missed chances. A musician in 1957 shouldn’t just be marked by wearing a staid jacket and a yellow shirt (Troy’s older son Lyons). I’d have dressed him like Little Richard. But that would be too theatrical and detracted from the (endlessly) serious intent. Pittsburgh’s hot in summer. Some sweaty chests wouldn’t have gone amiss in creating the mood. Troy and Rose looked good.
The highly emotive scenes between Lenny Henry as Troy and Tanya Moodie as Rose, are an acting masterclass, but that’s what Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee were experts at setting up. August Wilson is firmly in their tradition, and writes as powerfully. But he set this play in 1957, and wrote it in 1983. The major production was 1987. There is nothing whatsoever in the play to suggest it wasn’t written when it was set: 1957, or even ten years earlier. Maybe this is genius in recreating 1950s theatre. He’s showing the 1950s, in conventional 1950s style. Maybe it’s plain derivative. My vote is for the latter. You get no impression that he’d seen or embraced anything after around 1954 in theatrical terms.
It’s worth seeing for at least the three excellent adult roles.
My normal copyright note. Several well amplified and well placed bits of blues. One was “Juke” by Little Walter. I still don’t understand why this stuff isn’t credited in the theatre. Old Blue sung by Troy, then reprised by Cory and Raynell was excellent every time.
GRATUITOUS SMOKING NOTE